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Beauty and Beast: Reeling in the Mute Swan

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

by Kristen Minogue

Eleven-year-old Lucy Paskoff knows something about the hazards of filming wildlife. She and fellow home-school student McKenna Austin-Ward spent weeks documenting one of Chesapeake Bay’s most destructive pests: the mute swan.

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SERC Homeschool: Turning Science Students into Filmmakers

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

by Karen McDonald

From left: SERC home-school students Joe Giardina, Molly Enriquez and Anne Marie Nolan at the student documentary film screening. (SERC)

From left: SERC home-school students Joe Giardina, Molly Enriquez and Anne Marie Nolan at the student documentary film screening. (SERC)

It began with a video series called Ecosystems on the Edge. Home-school students ages 11 to 16 came to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center every two weeks, from September 2013 to January 2014, to create short science documentaries. Their abilities ranged from knowing how to shoot film to knowing how to turn on a computer, but full-scale video production was new to all of them. The Ecosystems series–short videos of SERC scientists working to save the coast–provided a springboard of ideas. The rest of the creative process was up to the students.

They broke into teams, ranging from one student to three.  Instructor Karen McDonald walked them through the documentary-making process. Each team had to draft a proposal, draw a story board, create a shot list and script, interview SERC scientists on camera, film “B” roll (extra film) and find narrators, or read the narration themselves. Then came post-production, when the students spent weeks learning to use editing software.

By January, four teams overcame the environmental snags and technical difficulties and produced their own documentary shorts. From invasive earthworms to mute swans, here are their films:

Invisible Invasion: Joe Giardina, Molly Enriquez, Anne Marie Nolan. Using ideas from the video Earthworm Invaders, this group focused on the silent and invisible invasion of earthworms in forests and the effects of invasive worms on forest ecosystems.

Beauty and Beast: McKenna-Austin Ward, Lucy Paskoff, Max Gwinn. This documentary was inspired by the video Alien Invader, which looked at invasive barnacles in the Chesapeake Bay. For their video the students chose the invasive mute swan, and compared people’s perception of the bird as beautiful to its beastly effect on the flora and fauna of the Bay.

Behind-the-Scenes: Filming Mute Swans in the Wild >>

Invertebrates as Bioindicators: Xanthia Strohl. Inspired by the video Stream Health, Xanthia explored the idea of using blue crabs and crayfish as indicators of water quality and health in the Bay, and suggested ideas for helping reduce runoff.

Blue Crabs-The Soul of the Chesapeake Bay: Abbie and Katie Cannon. This team of sisters was moved by the Blue Crabs: Top Predator in Peril film. Their documentary is based on the plight of the blue crab in the Bay, and factors affecting its population and success.

(Abbie and Katie entered their video in a film competition. To ensure a fair review by the judges, we’ll be posting their video after March 5.)

Volunteers Search for Invaders in Alaska Bioblitz

Monday, October 28th, 2013

by Monaca Noble, Kristen Larson, Linda McCann and Ian Davidson

Video: Biologists place pennies underwater to test how well volunteers can spot small invaders

What is the Bioblitz, and why would researcher Linda McCann cash in her dollar bills for hundreds of pennies in preparation for it?

Bioblitzers braved the rain to search for invasive species. (Deborah Mercy)

Bioblitzers braved the rain to search for invasive species. (Deborah Mercy)

A Bioblitz is an intensive survey in which trained volunteers head out en masse to catalog species in a specific area. On September 28, volunteers in Ketchikan, Alaska, joined staff from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), San Francisco State and the University of Alaska to search for invasive marine species along Ketchikan’s waterfront. The Marine Invasive Species Bioblitz in Ketchikan had three goals: to engage and teach the public about invasive species, detect newly arriving species that threaten Alaskan coastal waters, and recruit these enthusiastic volunteers for future monitoring efforts.

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New Path for Summer Education

Monday, September 16th, 2013

by Kristen Minogue

7-year-old Cecilia Bowers collects frogs in the SERC forest. (SERC)

7-year-old Cecilia Bowers collects frogs in the SERC forest. (SERC)

It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon. In the forest beside SERC’s beaver pond, Dylan McDowell and Shelby Ortiz have just finished helping a dozen 7-to-9-year-old students search for frogs and toads. They’re headed to the stream when McDowell runs into a dilemma: Some of the children don’t want to release their frogs.

“It would be really hard to find frogs around where I live,” says Emma Guy, who doesn’t have any parks or forests near her home.

“Did you know a couple years ago, they found a brand new species of frog in New York City?” McDowell asks her. He’s referring to a new species of leopard frog confirmed in 2012, whose known range has Yankee Stadium almost dead center. Closer to home, SERC biologists discovered juvenile eastern spadefoot toads in one of its wetlands this summer—the toad’s first recorded appearance on the SERC landscape. McDowell’s point, at least for the afternoon lesson: Amphibians can appear almost anywhere if you know where to look.

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Are You Smarter Than a SERC Visitor?

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

By Katie Sinclair

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Boats, beavers. . .and bear poop? If you want to see what our campers learned this summer, take this quiz below and see how you measure up!

Are You Smarter Than a SERC Visitor? Quiz

As store aisles quickly fill up with back to school supplies, SERC’s summer education programs are coming to a close. SERC’s Education Team took a slightly different approach to summer programming this year. Instead of hosting summer camps, they sponsored three “activity weeks” throughout the summer. Each activity week had a specific theme, and was tailored to different age groups. The first of SERC’s activity weeks was “Changing Environments,” designed for students aged 13-15. The week focused on certain case studies that highlighted environmental changes. The students also visited SERC’s weather tower, and went on expeditions in the SERC forest to catch insects and frogs. “Kids Unplugged”, the next week, was made up of students aged 7 to 9. One of the more memorable lessons was when the kids made “scat” out of play-doh in order to better understand the types of birds and mammals that live in the SERC forest.  The last activity week, “Junior SERC Scientists” introduced 10-12 years olds to problem solving and the scientific method. They used  forensic clues to discover who “killed” a beaver. The kids put their sleuthing skills to the test and found that the murderer was none other than Education Intern Shelby Ortiz!

As Green Crabs Invade, Alaskans Launch Counteroffensive

Thursday, March 14th, 2013

by Monaca Noble and Linda McCann

European green crabs are eating and marching their way up the west coast.

One of nine marine invertebrates to make the list of the world’s 100 worst invasive species, they’ve had major economic impacts on shellfisheries in New England, including blue mussels, the Virginia oyster (Crassostrea virginica) and Bay scallops. Impacts are mounting on the west coast too, where losses to bivalve fisheries (Pacific littleneck, Japanese littleneck, softshell clams and blue mussels) are projected to reach $20,000-60,000 per year. Ecologically, their impact has been no less severe, as they prey on and compete with other crabs, bivalves, gastropods like snails and slugs, and many other invertebrates.

European Green  Crab Carcinus maenas. Green crabs have visited every continent but Antarctica. They've colonized parts of the Americas from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina. (Arthro)

European Green Crab Carcinus maenas. Green crabs have visited every continent but Antarctica. They’ve colonized parts of the Americas from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina. (Arthro)

Green crabs are exceptional world travelers, making it from their native region along the European Coast to six major regions of the world, including the Northwest Atlantic (Maryland to Newfoundland), the Northeast Pacific (California to British Columbia), Patagonia, South Africa, Japan and Australia. Their mode of transport may vary, but evidence suggests they’ve been transported with the live-bait trade and in ships’ ballast water.

Green crabs have been on the East Coast of the US for about 200 years, according the NEMESIS database. They made their first appearance near New Jersey in 1817. From there they moved north, reaching the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia in 1953, the Gulf of St. Lawrence by 1994, and finally, Placentia Bay, Newfoundland in 2007. Their southward expansion stopped at the Chesapeake Bay; possibly they couldn’t compete with the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus).

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What the Plantation Owners Left Behind

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

by Kristen Minogue

Homestead House, called Woodlawn by its first residents in the early 1700s. (SERC)


On the western shore of Chesapeake Bay, less than a mile from the Rhode River, there is an old red house on an abandoned farm. Once, in the 18th century, it belonged to a thriving plantation. The hilled rows of tobacco have vanished, along with the slaves and field hands who planted them. But the scars on the landscape remain. The surrounding earth carries traces of how each of its inhabitants have used it, or abused it.

The house’s first inhabitants in the early 1700s called it Woodlawn. Today it is known simply as the Homestead House. The building and its surrounding farmland now sit within the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Instead of slaves and field hands, teams of volunteers are overturning the soil in search of clues about its past.

Archaeologist Jim Gibb began the excavation at SERC earlier in August. His volunteers come for a single afternoon, or several weeks. He isn’t terribly picky about long-term commitments. Gibb welcomes anyone who can handle a shovel and is at least ten years old (and even that rule is flexible). Under his guidance, they are piecing together the story of one household’s legacy on the land.

The team made one of their biggest discoveries just a few weeks into the project, when they uncovered a brick foundation sprinkled with household artifacts. One possibility is that it was a storage shed. Another, that it was someone’s home.

“If someone was living in that in the early 19th century, and we know where the owners were living, then we do the math,” Gibb said. “They have to be labor. And at that point, probably slave labor.”

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The Hidden Eyes of Blind Cats

Monday, April 9th, 2012

by Samantha Reed

Photo courtesy of Samantha Reed


Cats don’t need their eyes to see in the dark. It turns out they have something even better. This spring, 12-year-old SERC student Samantha Reed decided to find out if the same thing could help humans.
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4 Ways Birds (and Salamanders) Make Humans Look Primitive

Friday, February 24th, 2012

by Kristen Minogue

Laughter of a Snowy Owl

Nemodus Photos

Sometimes Mother Nature completely outdoes anything we’ve created for ourselves. Accomplishments like the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions can seem almost laughable when there are lizards that can walk on water. When that happens, smart engineers try to take a lesson from it. It’s called biomimicry: technology inspired by nature. Examples include gecko tape, shape-shifting airplane wings and Velcro©. Last week a group of teenage students in SERC’s home-school program finished their own research on animal physiology and brought a few more examples to our attention. Here are four ways birds and amphibians outclass humanity – and some wacky yet brilliant ways we can mimic them.
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The Making of a Green Science Lab

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Architect's image of new Mathias Lab, complete with rain cistern on porch and wetlands to the left. (Credit: EwingCole)

Sustainable houses and office buildings have seen their popularity surge in recent years. But creating a more sustainable laboratory, especially one with chemistry research, where fume hoods can consume up to three times as much energy as an average home, is a bit more of a challenge.

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